BioOne is pleased to present the winners of the 2022 BioOne Ambassador Award, and we invite you to read their exemplary submissions in this showcase.
Now in its fifth year, this prestigious award recognizes early-career authors who excel in the communication of their research to the general public. Authors are nominated by BioOne publishing partners, and submit a response to the prompt of “how does your research change the world?”
BioOne recognizes these individuals for their clarity and creativity in communicating their specialized research.
Every year, thousands of community scientists rise before the crack of dawn to count birds, but they’re unlikely to find one of these odd, goat-sucking birds. You see the “goatsuckers”, or nightjars as they’re more formally called, are nocturnal. Goatsuckers don’t actually feed on goat’s milk though; they’re likely attracted to livestock for the tasty insect buffet. Nightjars use their huge eyes, long wings, and cavernous mouths to catch flying insects by the light of the moon. Despite their oddities, these birds are spectacularly beautiful. They rely on their intricately mottled plumage to camouflage with leaves or branches where they roost during the day.
The problem with this nocturnal behaviour is that when nightjars aren’t reported on annual bird surveys, we can’t tell if it’s because they weren’t there or if they were just sleeping. The Breeding Bird Survey is the cornerstone of avian conservation in North America. Each year since 1966, community scientists count all the birds they can see and hear at each of 50 stops along standardized roadside routes across North America. The information those skilled birders collect is used to identify populations that are declining, to direct conservation efforts, to assess population recovery and management actions, and to assess overall environmental health. But nothing is perfect! There are a number of bird species, including the nightjars, for which the Breeding Bird Survey doesn’t quite fit the “bill” (pun intended). If we don’t detect those species during surveys, then we can’t assess the health of their populations.
So, we thought, what’s in a name? They are nightjars after all. Starting in 2010, we set out to learn the benefits of surveying for nightjars at night. A couple of good friends and I started a trial nocturnal survey program for nightjars under the non-profit organization WildResearch. We followed in the footsteps of the Nightjar Survey Network in the United States, using a subset of the Breeding Bird Survey stops but starting surveys at dusk instead of dawn. As Program Manager, I spent my spare time growing the program from two volunteers in southern British Columbia to hundreds across Canada. I was deeply motivated by the fact that as far as we can tell, nightjars are declining. Several species are listed as being of conservation concern, as are many other species of birds that eat flying insects.
Fast forward ten years and we’ve taken the data from that trial program to show how important these targeted community science surveys are for nightjars. I collaborated with experts in population analysis to determine that the nocturnal surveys are almost twice as likely to detect a decline in Common Nighthawk populations as the diurnal Breeding Bird Survey. The nocturnal surveys also did a better job of revealing Common Nighthawk habitat relationships and predicting where these enigmatic birds could be found. We used the Common Nighthawk as a case study for our analysis because it is by far the most common nightjar in our Canadian study area, but also because the other more nocturnal nightjar species aren’t reported often enough on the Breeding Bird Survey to do any analysis with!
What surprised us, however, was that the best outcome occurred when we combined the data from the nocturnal surveys with that from the Breeding Bird Survey! It took a bit of statistical finagling but including both datasets improved the probability of detecting population changes and the overall performance of habitat models. In other words, the two programs are better together than apart. We suggest there is potential for further synergy in terms of volunteer recruitment and retention, given that the nocturnal surveys use the same survey routes as the Breeding Bird Survey.
Fast forward another two years and our trial nocturnal nightjar survey has fledged to become the official Canadian Nightjar Survey. Our evaluation of the nocturnal surveys garnered long-term support from Environment and Climate Change Canada so that we can help monitor and conserve nightjars. More importantly though, our study emphasized the value and importance of working together at all levels, from collaborating with our communities to survey birds across North America, to working with other scientists to combine datasets. Ultimately, collaboration gives us the power to better monitor the natural world, including our mysterious nightjar friends, so that we can keep the mystery alive.
This response is in reference to:
Ornithological Applications, 123(2): 1-14. 2021.
Elly C. Knight, Adam C. Smith, R. Mark Brigham, Erin M. Bayne
Dr. Neelakshi Joshi
What images come to mind when you think of the Himalayas? Lofty snow-covered mountains, dense green forests, and a few small villages or towns? While this was true decades ago, today’s Himalayas have not gone untouched by rapid population growth and urbanization. Around 54 million people currently live in the Himalayas, a staggering 250% increase from 1960. Small villages have slowly turned into towns – some even into large cities. Urban development is hailed for bringing healthcare, education, and prosperity to Himalayan communities. However, its rapid pace and unplanned nature keeps urban development researchers like myself awake at night.
We are concerned about three particular things. First, the Himalayas are a young, active mountain range, prone to earthquakes and landslides. Large, dense human settlements are laying the foundation of their urban dreams on shaky terrain. The 2015 Kathmandu earthquake was a stark reminder of the massive destruction earthquakes can visit on the Himalayas. Second, the impacts of climate change are likely to manifest as unpredictable weather events like extreme rainfall in the Himalayas. This represents an added peril for urban settlements, exposing them to flooding and landslides. Finally, and closest to my research, there is the reality that cities are being built in an unplanned fashion, without adequate consideration for safety measures, like earthquake-resistant design or proper drainage.
To understand the current tools and knowledge, regarding building construction and urban development, available to residents and city planners in the Himalayas, I travelled to Almora. Almora is a small but rapidly urbanizing mountain town of roughly 50,000 residents, situated in India’s Uttarakhand Himalayas. Prior research indicated that the urban area in Almora grew by 100% between 2001 and 2010. I talked to 150 residents about the experience of building their homes during this period and the ways and means they used to address risks like earthquakes, landslides and flooding. While I expected people to talk about building regulations and land use plans provided by the municipality, it turned out that about 93% of the participants relied solely on information provided by private contractors and masons. One reason for this was that Almora municipality lacked a formal land use plan to guide residents regarding land suitable for construction.
I then visited nine building sites and talked to masons and contractors. I was hoping to hear about rich vernacular traditions for addressing risk in Himalayan constructions. Instead, current building professionals did not work with traditional materials like stone or wood or use traditional risk reduction techniques. These materials have become expensive over time and craftspeople who work with them are fast disappearing. Mass produced materials like concrete and steel, which are imported into the Himalayas, are now more readily available and affordable. The problem, as I point out in my research, is that concrete is an engineered material that requires formal training. The building professionals in the Himalayas, however, do not have access to proper training and are largely self-taught. This mismatch between skill and material can result in weak structures that are highly vulnerable to earthquakes and landslides.
The results of my research left me rather worried. I felt there was a need for serious conversations on how to address these knowledge gaps. So, I organized a workshop with the help of a local environmental NGO and used my research results as a basis for communication with residents, building professionals, municipal employees, and academics. One key recommendation that emerged from our discussion was the urgent need to upgrade the skills and knowledge of local building professionals on addressing risk in the construction process. The local disaster management center was identified as a potential partner for this. Another long-term recommendation for municipal authorities was to inform, encourage and incentivize residents to employ trained building professionals.
Our discussions made quite a splash in town, receiving coverage in the local newspaper and expanding the conversation on addressing urban risks in Almora’s development process.
Ever-increasing population and urbanization trends in the Himalayas indicate that talks on risk reduction and climate change adaptation need to be loud and frequent. As Himalayan cities busy themselves with building an urban future, urban planning researchers need to engage with the unique socio-economic conditions of the Himalayan cities and present context-specific solutions to tackle urban risk by engaging local communities as equal partners in the process.
This response is in reference to:
Mountain Research and Development, 41(1): R13-R21. 2021.
S. Sangeeth Sailas
Human activities have led us to the point where species are disappearing before we have a chance to understand their ecology. Owls in the tropics are one such group of species. Due to their nocturnal and elusive nature, lack of reliable population estimates or other information on their ecology, many species of tropical owls may be declining right under our noses.
India hosts a treasure trove of biodiversity which includes 36 species of owls. But we still know practically nothing about most of them, except for a rough idea about their distribution and some anecdotal information. These predators of the night are however, key components of ecosystems, controlling prey populations, acting as indicators of biodiversity and occupying important roles in myths and cultures around the world. In human-dominated agricultural landscapes, owls like the Barn Owl and the Little Owl even act as biological agents of pest control.
Many species of owls in Europe and North America are undergoing declines, but we have this understanding only because of decades of previous research and large-scale bird atlases. If we want to have this kind of knowledge on tropical owls and decide which species need to be prioritized for conservation, we have to start now.
The study for which I find myself nominated for the BioOne Ambassador award was actually part of my master’s dissertation, which took me to a remote part of the Garo Hills in north-east India, falling within the Indo-Burma region, a biodiversity hotspot of the world. My objective was to identify the various factors that influenced the distribution of owls in the region. There, I lived with the indigenous people of the Garo tribe and surveyed owls in and around Community Reserves. These Community Reserves are a special kind of protected area, where the land ownership remains with the local people, who manage the reserves together with the state forest department. I also collected data on vegetation structure from the field and variables relating to terrain structure and distance to water bodies and settlements from satellite imagery. This allowed me to relate the occurrence and abundance of owls to these variables and using statistical models, find out which variables influenced the distribution of owls the most.
My results showed that different variables influenced each species of owl that I recorded. The small Mountain Scops Owl avoided water bodies and was found in areas with larger gaps in the forest canopy. On the other hand, the Collared Owlet, which is the smallest species of owl in India, did not really seem to care about specific habitat characteristics much and was hence a habitat generalist. The third species, the imposing Brown Wood Owl which is thought to be in decline and the largest among the three, preferred areas with gentle slopes, closer to water bodies. The species also occurred higher in areas with large-girth trees, the cavities of which the owl nests in. A closer look at my data showed that the Community Reserves were the places that, on average, housed the trees with the largest girth.
This indicates that Community Reserves are acting as refuges for the Brown Wood Owl. The main reason for this could be that the Community Reserves were among the few places in the landscape that still had patches of old-growth forests. Therefore, strengthening the protection of these reserves becomes crucial if we want to conserve the Brown Wood Owl and also other less-known species associated with old-growth forests. Also, by protecting the old-growth forests in the Community Reserves, we are also saving carbon sinks that are priceless in the ongoing fight against climate change.
While I went to north-east India with an ambition to study owls, once I got there, I realized that people, protected areas, owls and their habitats were all interlinked. But if someone were to still ask me how my study in a small part of north-east India could change the world, my answer would be: “Hope”. The hope that studies like mine inspire more people to study owls and other lesser known species in the tropics, allowing us to learn more about the fantastical species that exist here and about what is happening to them. My study also shows that there is hope for these species yet, and that collaborative efforts in establishing protected areas along with indigenous people haven’t been for nothing.
This response is in reference to:
Ardea, 109(2): 185-199. 2021.
S. Sangeeth Sailas, S. Babu, P. Pramod, P.V. Karunakaran, H.N. Kumara
On a warm Saturday night in downtown Clemson, South Carolina, college students laugh boisterously as they head down a dimly lit street. Perched in the shadows above them, the low hooting of an owl mingles with their voices and goes unnoticed. A female Barred Owl is calling to its mate, enticing it to deliver food to its hungry chicks.
For a long time, the Barred Owl was largely regarded as being at odds with urbanization. An inhabitant of contiguous old growth forest, Barred Owls were considered an indicator species for high quality, pristine woodlands. However, in recent years, observations of Barred Owls in large southeastern cities, like Charlotte and Atlanta, made scientists rethink this assumption. How could a species previously found to avoid human activities now be thriving in our backyards? When I began my research in Clemson, urban dwelling Barred Owls had been observed for the last 15 years, but only a handful of studies had begun to investigate why these owls might be moving into our cities.
While most were sound asleep, my team and I surveyed for owls using with a loudspeaker and recording devices. The speaker played the Barred Owls’ famous song, known as the moniker “who-cooks-for you.” During the breeding season, Barred Owls defend their territories from other owls. This was used to our advantage: the speaker mimicked an intruder, and owls in the vicinity of the call would come towards the sound, becoming easy to spot by my team. Recording devices were also placed on a nearby tree, and Barred Owl calls detected by the device’s microphones could be used to determine whether an area was occupied by owls. The timing of owl calls helped us to refine the most efficient survey strategy for this species. We found that much like the dawn and dusk songs of daytime birds, Barred Owls had two calling peaks: immediately after sunset and 8 hours later.
Scientists frequently use these types of presence-absence surveys to investigate habitat associations of species of interest. In our case, we used our findings to study habitat use of owls along an increasing degree of development. Our questions were simple: What habitats were consistently important for Barred Owls, despite the intensity of development? Did certain habitat features become more important as urbanization increased within the owl’s territory? To enhance our ability to answer these questions, we also deployed GPS transmitters on owls (i.e., location trackers), which allowed us to peer into their lives and observe where they preferred to hunt and nest.
The surveys and GPS relocations gave us some very interesting insight on why Barred Owls might be sharing our cities with us. Most importantly- tall trees are the key. In historic southeastern cities, the warm humid climate enables large oaks to tower over homes and apartment buildings. These trees likely remind urban owls of their natural habitat: gnarled trunks shadowed by thick canopies provide shelter and ample opportunities to nest in rotted bark and cavities. The only thing that differs is the manicured lawns underneath the trees- but even that is reminiscent of the largely open understory of mature forests. Urban Barred Owls depart from their forest counterparts after their preference for tall trees. Undeniable differences between forested and urban environments have trained city owls to take advantage of different habitat features. Urban owls, for example, are more likely to take advantage of hunting opportunities along roads and streams than their rural cousins.
The implications of our study on urban Barred Owls is two-fold. One side of this story attests to the intelligence and behavioral flexibility of this animal. It is a story of adaptation, of hope that even the most elusive creatures may adjust to increasing urbanization if given enough time. Another side of the story has broader implications for us- and what we can do to take charge of our future to ensure that diversity persists despite our increasing footprint on the planet. If certain cities can be welcoming to a deep forest creature- there must be something we are doing right. If it is home to the Barred Owl, it could be home to a myriad of other animals. Could we find a way to enhance the ability of cities to welcome a diversity of wildlife communities? And is the solution to create rich urban forests, with a variety of stand structures and native plants? Additional research on other uncommon wildlife in cities – such as deer, mountain lions, and more, will continue to help us plan for a better future.
This response is in reference to:
Journal of Raptor Research, 55(1): 45-55. 2021.
Marion Clément, Julia Shonfield, Erin M. Bayne, Robert Baldwin, Kyle Barrett
This response is in reference to:
Journal of Wildlife Diseases, 58(1): 86-99. 2022.
Aricia Duarte-Benvenuto, Carlos Sacristán, Laura Reisfeld, Priscilla C. Santos-Costa, Natalia C. C. dA. Fernandes, Rodrigo A. Ressio, Daniela M. D. Mello, Cíntia Favero, Katia R. Groch, Josué Diaz-Delgado, José L. Catão-Dias